By Grace Rogers, Highlighter staff writer
The 21st century’s version of self-portraiture, the “selfie,” has taken over social media feeds and camera rolls more and more frequently ever since it was crowned Oxford Dictionary’s Word of the Year in 2013. Whether they’re taken in front of a mirror or with a Snapchat filter, selfies have the potential to act as radical forms of self-expression, especially for people placed on the margins of beauty standards. Yes, selfies can be decidedly meaningless, but a legitimate debate has been raised on whether or not they can be called “art” — a debate that cannot be fully fleshed out without addressing the question of female empowerment.
Long before we all had Instagram accounts, radical feminist artists were using self-portraiture to break from gender stereotypes and take control of their image. The same practice happens today, but through a different device: take Molly Soda, a digital artist and Tumblr personality who’s known for taking pictures of her body hair and leaking her own nudes to denounce conventional expectations of feminine beauty. Or look at Natalie Yang, a California-based artist who created a selfie-filled zine titled I Can Be My Own Muse to open a discussion about feminist culture on the internet. The artistic potential is there, but because we’ve all taken our fair share of meaningless selfies, it’s hard to picture strangers walking among them in future galleries thinking, “This is art.”
Taking and posting selfies can be an act of declaration, a big “F-you” to those who say they don’t fit the feminine mold. They’re also vital components to a collective, online diary of intimate thoughts shared between girls, as if one girl’s bad day helps another remember she’s not alone. Not convinced? Here are real-life examples that illustrate the artistic power of selfies.
“As a black non-binary woman I am expected to conform and choose sides. My very existence is dehumanized and hypersexualized. I lack autonomy over my body because I am expected to fit into my perceived image. I am denied of complexity as it isn’t reserved for me. Society’s viewpoint on black femme people and black women is one dimensional.” (x)
“unfollow me now if you can’t deal with pimples, hair, stretchmarks etc literally anything that isn’t airbrushed ✌ cuz your negativity and ignorance isn’t welcome on this insta and there’s no room for more hate and shaming here – this is not just about me but about all the amazing girls/women/whatever I photograph that deserve to be celebrated and represented” (x)
“The hyper-awareness I have surrounding my physical self was not my choice, it developed as a survival tactic. I cannot walk down the street without a man commenting on my appearance. I cannot buy groceries without feeling the stare of six different men I walked past down the frozen aisle. I cannot get through a shift at work without a male co worker making a rape joke. It is these daily experiences that make it impossible for me to forget that I have a body, for I am so often valued as only that. This is part of the reality of what it means to be a woman.” (x)
“I like to think of social media like a landscape, with little territories that pop up, sprawling cities, and little one-to-one meetings, with easy communication between all of them. On Instagram, though, there are these territories of girls and other marginalised bodies expressing themselves and making friends that would be probably be seen as radical leftist communes if they existed IRL. Just because they’re happening digitally and not occupying a more obviously material space doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.” (x)
“I went through more emotional turmoil this past year i think I have ever gone through in my entire life. I kept finding myself at all time lows and struggling to find the faith that things will get better, but for the first time in a long time I have exponential faith about 2016 and I’m ready to make this new year my bitch. I woke up crying this morning, still stressed, still sad, but trying to stay present and grounded and confident that I’m only on an incline from this moment on.” (x)